Quebec needs more nurses to answer flood of telehealth calls, health minister says


The province’s health minister is pleading with qualified nurses, asking them to sign up and lend a hand to the 811 service, saying the province’s telehealth staff are overwhelmed with an increase in calls.

On Thursday, Christian Dubé said the province is looking for retired nurses, those working in the private sector and nursing students. He said they can sign up on the province’s recruitment website called Je contribue — French for “I pitch in” — that was launched at the start of the pandemic.

Dubé said the province needs 3,000 qualified people to step up but added Quebec “could take up to 5,000 nurses to answer the phones.” 

“If there are nurses that want to help us over the coming weeks, there are good schedules. It’s work that can be done part time.”

When Quebecers call 811, the first option on the menu is for Info-Santé, where nurses assess a caller’s symptoms and offer medical advice. The second option is for parents of sick children, under the age of 18.

Those two services received 5,000 calls each on Wednesday, according to the health minister, and it’s a volume of calls that’s too high for current staff levels.

The service now lets callers know how long the waiting times are, Dubé said. He said the province wants to create a virtual waiting room, allowing callers to leave their number and have 811 staff call them back instead of waiting on the line.

“But to do that, I have to be certain that a nurse will be able to call back the patient,” Dubé said, implying that without more staff, it would be difficult for nurses to take care of callbacks.

The health minister, who formed a crisis task force in late October to tackle the issue of overcrowded emergency rooms, said the issue is far from resolved, but there has been progress.

Quebec emergency rooms are overcrowded and tens of thousands of children are missing school due to illness. (Charles Contant/CBC)

He also said many of the people calling 811 are people who otherwise would have headed straight to the ER.

But Dubé said the situation will remain “very difficult” for the foreseeable future, with about 120,000 children currently home from school because of illness.

According to the president of the Fédération interprofessionnelle de la santé du Québec (FIQ), which represents 76,000 health-care workers including nurses and nursing assistants, Dubé’s plea for more 811 staff shows how out of touch he is with reality.

“There are about 5,000 workers missing in the health-care sector,” said Julie Bouchard. “If we don’t have them for [facilities in] the public network, we definitely won’t have them for 811.”

A person is sitting at a desk.
Julie Bouchard, the president of the  Fédération interprofessionnelle de la santé du Québec, says asking for more nurses to help with the 811 service is not realistic given the shortages elsewhere in the public health network. (Louis-René Ménard/Radio-Canada)

The health minister did not consult with the FIQ before making Thursday’s public statement, Bouchard said.

In addition to Info-Santé and the pediatric hotline, the province has also launched a third 811 option, called the Primary Care Access Point, known in French as the Guichet d’accès première ligne (GAP).

Quebecers who don’t have a family doctor — and who are signed up on the waiting list for one — can use the GAP to have a nurse assess their symptoms and, if needed, book an appointment for them with a general practitioner or refer them to the right service.

According to the province, half of the calls to the GAP end with an appointment being booked for a patient.

Since last Friday, the flu shot is free across Quebec. 2022-12-01 19:42:28


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